This paper was submitted to the 1973 Durban Strikes Celebrating 50 Years Conference
To this day, the only book-length study of the mass strikes of 1973 remains the booklet produced by the Institute of Industrial Education in the immediate wake of the strike wave, The Durban Strikes. Collectively researched and written by Rick Turner, Foszia Fisher, and a ragtag assemblage of students who had been active in the UND Wages Commission, TDS offers immediacy; drawing heavily on interviews with workers and employers, the study still serves as both an excellent documentary record of the events themselves and as an example of the thinking of Turner and his cohort of young radicals.
This paper offers a critical reassessment of this important pamphlet/booklet, closely examining its methodology, philosophical grounding, and political implications and mindset. Seeking the immediate causes of the strike outbreak, the pamphlet concluded that ‘the strikes either came about through some quite complicated underground organization (of which there is no evidence)’ or ‘else they came about as a result of a large number of independent decisions by unofficial leaders and influential workers in different factories.’ Investigating the process by which the multiple decisions made by African and Indian workers to down tools, the IIE activists concluded that ‘consensus seems to have emerged from continuous discussion’ on the shop floor and in the streets, hostels, taxi ranks and buses. In fact, The Durban Strikes presented the strikes as a textbook example of ‘spontaneous mass action’ – that is, ‘a situation in which each individual recognises his or herself in an ongoing action.’ Drawing on Turner’s Sartrean philosophy, New Left thinking about alienation, and a model of everyday workplace resistance as the key to worker consciousness, TDS laid the intellectual basis for what would become the ‘workerism’ of the independent South African union movement of the 1970s.
Alex Lichtenstein is Professor of History and American Studies at Indiana University and has been a guest lecturer at UCT, UWC, and the University of Sao Paulo. He is the author, with Rick Halpern, of Margaret Bourke-White and the Dawn of Apartheid (2017), based on a photography exhibited he curated in three venues South Africa. His essays on South African history and politics have appeared in Africa, SAHJ, JSAS, JAH, the LA Review of Books, Public Books, and the Johannesburg Review of Books. His current research focuses on the history of Black trade unions under apartheid.